No one would describe Jack Dangermond as a household name. Yet this unassuming global tech billionaire, with the largest software company you have never heard of, has pioneered a ubiquitous technology that underpins many of the world’s latest game-changing business innovations.
For just on 50 years, the Californian businessman and philanthropist has surfed wave after wave of computing shifts and shake ups to build one of the most enduring technology platforms of the modern age.
Along the way, this master of reinvention has been part of an elite few who have set the pace for advances in computing technology, from minicomputers and PCs, to the Internet, Cloud and mobile devices.
Frequently described as the Bill Gates of GIS, Dangermond has pushed Geographic Information System (GIS) technology further than any of his contemporaries.
Ranked on Forbes’ list of billionaires, with a personal fortune estimated to be in excess of US$3B, this son of Dutch immigrants initially trained to be a landscape architect.
But it was while working in a computer graphics lab at Harvard he first discovered the then fledgling digital mapping technology that would become his lifelong passion.
Moving back to his hometown in 1969 armed with a $5,000 loan from his mother, Dangermond and wife Laura launched Esri – the Environmental Systems Research Institute – and began developing what would become its flagship GIS application, ArcGIS.
Today, Esri’s user base comprises more than 1,000,000 users across 400,000 businesses, government agencies and NGOs, including the White House and United Nations.
Virtually every city and county in the US, every tier of government in Indonesia plus thousands more private and public organisations world-over use Esri solutions to manage everything from roads and telecommunication networks, to crime, borders, utilities, health services, natural resources and much more.
The company’s longest standing user community, the national security sector, uses Esri location-based analytics to map and analyse human terrain in global terrorist hot spots. One of its newer markets, agriculture, leverages the technology to optimise supply chains, predict the effects of variable weather patterns and improve farm yields.
From tracking shifting flood waters and fire fronts in real-time to designing intuitive public transport systems and smart cities, the applications of Esri technology are virtually unlimited.
Locating friends in high places
Observing Dangermond’s business strategy, it appears to be one simply geared towards world domination.
An extraordinarily high rate of investment in R&D has made it near impossible for would-be competitors – including Google, who bowed out of the global GIS market in 2015 after a brief dabble – to get ahead of Esri’s market-leading position.
Furthermore, Dangermond has made it his mission to get spatial sciences on the agenda of the world’s most influential leaders.
Case in point, when former US President Barrack Obama launched a climate data initiative to help communities prepare for climate change, Esri provided the map-based planning tools and collaboration platforms. No doubt Dangermond’s US$1M donation of software to American schools and ringing endorsements from pop culture icons like will.i.am has also helped to keep GIS front of mind for his and other country’s leaders.
Similarly, the Dangermond’s US$165 million purchase of an iconic 10,000 hectare slice of land along the Californian coastline, to protect it from development, was widely praised as the biggest ever donation to the global environment group The Nature Conservancy.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has also used Esri to help lead campaigns against malaria and Ebola in Africa.
“One of the areas of technology that has gone further than I ever expected is mapping,” Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates told Forbes in 2016.
“And we have Jack Dangermond to thank, in large part, for his pioneering efforts of almost 50 years.
“He’s one of a kind.”
Dangermond’s efforts are not going unnoticed. In early 2019, he was awarded a royal honour in the Netherlands – the Officer in the Order of Orange-Nassau, for his extraordinary contribution to the national and international GIS community.
Making maps go mainstream
Certainly Dangermond’s Napoleonic style has earnt him cult status amongst millions of ArcGIS users worldwide.
Esri’s annual week-long User Conference in San Diego eclipses similar events held by Apple and Google with nearly 20,000 GIS enthusiasts from around the globe attending to hear Dangermond’s passionate dissertations on all things geographic.
And while there is no denying Dangermond has won the lion share of the world’s diehard spatial technology enthusiasts, it now appears he is making significant inroads into markets once exclusively owned by traditional Big Data analytics (BDA), Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality technologies.
He attributes the growing interest from non-traditional users to “the democratisation of GIS”.